Rejoice always

Celebration of Mass at Madison Square Garden in NYC. Photo by US Papal Visit. CC 2.0.
Celebration of Mass at Madison Square Garden in NYC. Photo by US Papal Visit. CC 2.0.

My daughter looked at a picture of Pope Francis and said, “He looks like a happy person.” I responded, “I think he is.” Have you noticed his joy on this visit to the United States? I have marveled at his stamina, but it appears that the more he gives himself away, the more he is energized. Sounds biblical, doesn’t it? Selfies, hugs, kissing babies, speeches, lunches, long rides greeting countless people – none of this appears to deplete him, his countenance remains joyful. No wonder the world is drawn to him. No wonder he can say challenging things to powerful people and have them want more of him, his words, his wisdom. The kind of joy and peace he exudes attracts others. We all want it to rub off on us. I want some of it.

I feel a fatigue, a malaise, a corporate sadness in our denomination and even in some of our congregations. This is understandable. We’ve had some painful events rock our Presbyterian world and those events, both within and without, don’t seem to be coming to an end anytime soon. Yet, I hear the oldest document in the New Testament calling from a distance: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Where has our rejoicing gone? Why aren’t we giving thanks? I long to go to worship and sense energy and excitement, recognizing that we are doing something not only important, but something wonderfully joyful. I ache for a church that doesn’t see the cup half empty or half full, but sees it overflowing. I want to be part of the Body of Christ that sings with gusto “glory to God whose goodness shines on me” or “my soul cries out with a joyful shout” because we know that the world is about to turn and we are unquestionably confident it is turning toward the love and justice and peace of God. I want to be among a people ready to say “yes” to Christ’s call, dropping their nets to follow a certain future full of unknowns.

Is this possible? I trust fully that it is. I trust it simply because we are post-Easter people so we are able to look at all the other “posts” through the lens of undeniable resurrection life. God is surly doing a new thing, so shouldn’t we rejoice and give thanks?

Moderator Heath Rada challenged the church last week. Part of what he asked was for Presbyterians to “affirm” this effort of reform that he shared. He also called everyone to “participate actively.” I, therefore, in gratitude to Moderator Rada, want to affirm his call to listen, set priorities and act. I rejoice in his bravery in stepping beyond his official boundaries. (That seems biblical, too.) I commit myself to actively participate in moving the Presbyterian Church forward as we follow Jesus Christ.

Surely, God is calling us to preach, teach and serve in particular ways given our context and gifts. Therefore, I am not concerned with the outcome of these efforts as much as I am committed to an attitude about them and about the PC(USA). I want to rejoice and pray and give thanks with my fellow Presbyterians. I want to seek to participate in the new thing God is doing while continuing to worship Jesus Christ with joy in the present where God is already at work.

Christian ethicist Samuel Wells writes about “givens” and “gifts” in his book, “Improvisation, The Drama of Christian Ethics.” He makes the argument that Christians have assumed the wrong givens and therefore missed the gifts that are ever before us. I think we as a church have done exactly this. We have assumed given things such as numerical declines in members and money. We have said it’s a given that the church is no longer perceived as relevant. We have thought for sure it is a given that our influence has waned and there isn’t anything we can do about it. Wells would posit that, in fact, all those things are not “givens” but “gifts.”

How is that possible? It is possible when the only given is “God’s story, the theo-drama, the church’s narrative: all else is potentially gift.” If the only given is God’s story, and we know how that story ends, than everything, absolutely everything, somehow fits into God’s salvation history.

Could we see all that is happening as potential gifts? Could we give thanks in our present circumstances? Could we even rejoice because we have the privilege of being in this redemption story together?

If we can then others will see us and say, “They look happy.” And we will be more than happy, we will be joy-filled and ready to tell the world why.